Brian Crommett is doing the bulk of his work from his home in north Fargo, rather than from his office in Moorhead these days. And Crommett, the CEO of 702 Communications, plays a key role in allowing thousands of others to do the same.
With seemingly all of America at home on a laptop instead of at a workstation at an office park somewhere for the time being, as people isolate themselves to slow the spread of coronavirus, one would think that internet usage has spiked. Telecommunications experts say that is not the case, but there are definitely some changes being seen in how and when people get online.
“Really, the difference for us is just a time of day shift. We’re not seeing a dramatic increase in the amount of bandwidth people are using,” Crommet said. “It’s up maybe 10 or 15 percent, so there is an increase, but it’s really just a change in the timing of it.”
All-day internet at home
In a normal 9-to-5 world, with people at offices and children at school during the day, the use of residential bandwidth is greater in the evening. With most people working from home and most students taking classes online, the use of the internet is more spread out throughout the day, with a somewhat surprising peak time.
“For the majority of providers, 9 o’clock on Sunday night is a crazy busy time for a network,” said Brent Christensen, president and CEO of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance, which is the trade association for 43 telecom providers throughout the region. “Probably a lot of that is Netflix, but it could also be people rushing to get ready for the next week of work and kids getting homework assignments done at the last minute.”
Most telecom companies have built networks well in advance of the pandemic that have been built to handle much higher levels of traffic than are currently being seen. When people are seeing slowdowns in their home networks, it is usually a result of much higher internet use under their own roof.
“Our backbone networks were designed for heavy usage. We engineer the networks for multiples of what’s actually being used, just to handle upticks in traffic like this,” said Christensen, whose family owns Christensen Communications in Madelia, Minn. “You will see slowdowns in your home network, not necessarily on the internet, because your home wifi network is maxed out. Take all of your laptops, then add on the internet of things, like an Alexa device somewhere in your house, or a Nest thermostat, or phones connected to the wifi in your house. You could have 30 or 40 devices in your house using the wifi, when all you think about are three or four laptops. So there’s a lot of traffic going over your home network and that’s where you’re seeing a bog down.”
Providing upgrades, carefully
Due to that increased usage within many home wifi networks, telecom companies are seeing a demand for upgrades, and some first-time buyers of home internet. In the past, cost was always considered the main reason that people did not have internet access at home. Instead, they are learning that many people primarily accessed the internet at work, and would use data on their phones at home if they needed to get online. That has changed with more people working from home, and more students doing distance learning.
Some companies have collaborated with local school officials to ensure that students in need can get online from home.
“We’ve worked closely with the schools to try to identify individuals that maybe didn’t have internet before at home, for financial reasons or whatever, to try to get them a really low-cost solution,” Crommett said. “We worked with Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo schools to provide some internet options for those guys.”
One big change is how broadband hardware is delivered. Where a technician would go into a home to install things in the past, a need to safeguard workers from potential coronavirus exposure means more do-it-yourself solutions.
“We have the need to protect our staffs, so companies that have always had trucks rolling to install service have gone to self-installs,” Christensen said. “We’ll drop a modem off at their doorstep and they install it themselves, so there’s no interaction.”
No time for layoffs
But at this time when so many companies are cutting workers, the telecom providers are a source of steady employment.
“I’ve got 40 employees and we are not doing any layoffs,” Crommett said. “There are no furloughs in sight or anything like that. We were able to pretty easily transition to an entirely work-from-home basis. This is an essential service and we recognize that. I need the staff I have to support the customers, so we’re not looking at any reductions.”
At least in one industry, business is strong.
“It has been a good month,” said Crommett. “We have people signing up (for internet service) and we don’t have people disconnecting because everyone is holding onto this as their lifeline to the world right now. We’re happy to be able to provide it.”